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In Search Of The Atom Style:

Part 3

If you find yourself in, or even near, Belgium this summer you must go and see an exhibition I have curated: In Search Of The Atom Style. The exhibition runs from June 5 to September 20, 2009, and is being held at the Atomium at the Square de l’Atomium in Brussels. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this article I discussed the origins of the Atom Style together with a closer look at artists working in that style. Now read on…

Use The Mood Of The Past
To Rewire Your Brain For The Future!

Ever Meulen

This year, all year long, has been designated as the Year of Comics by the various cultural and tourist bodies of Brussels. It’s no coincidence that it’s Tintin’s 80th birthday and the Hergé Museum has opened in Louvain-La-Neuve, a new town just outside the Belgian capital. Exhibitions on the BD theme are being staged in almost every major venue across the city and one obvious site in which to mount one was The Atomium.

Now I’ve been slightly amazed at the number of people who have not known about this building, created for Expo ‘58, Brussel’s Universal Exposition in 1958, and based on an iron atom enlarged 160 million times. Luckily, while almost everything else from Expo ‘58 was sadly taken down, The Atomium still stands and was sparklingly refurbished in time for its 50th anniversary last year. It’s not in the city centre but a tram or metro ride outside, but it is the Eiffel Tower or London Eye of Brussels. And yes, it is so huge you can go inside, travelling up the connecting rods or high-speed central lift to each of the nine spheres containing exhibitions, café viewing rooms and other spaces.

I first visited this with my parents and brother around 1971 on a family coach-trip holiday. My Dad shot a home movie of it and we’ve never forgotten getting to the top of this stunning space-age monument, only to be told that it was too busy for us to go back down inside via the stairs and we would have to descend via the fire escape outside - not a pleasant experience for my Dad as he suffered from vertigo. I was assured on my return visit this spring that they no longer normally allow the public onto those exposed exterior exits.

A number of ideas had been put forward for a comics exhibition and the choice was made of "A la recherche du Style Atome" (or In Search of the Atom Style), a Proustian reference to Belgium’s classic comics of the Fifties and the artists inspired by them from the late Seventies to today. A number of factors resulted in the decision to shift the exhibition’s focus away from Fifties’ masters like Jijé and Franquin and focus on Joost Swarte’s definition from 1977 and the artists who responded to their influences, or as Ever Meulen put it so brilliantly: Use the mood of the past to rewire your brain for the future.

You might wonder why the organisers asked a Brit like me to curate this show, but the simple answers are that they wanted someone to bring an international, "outsider" and non-Belgian perspective and they knew that I was knowledgeable about the Atom Style and had helped promote it during the heyday of Escape Magazine from 1983. 

Another decisive step was the decision not to show any original artwork, because the security risks were too high in such a busy, highly public space. Instead, French exhibition designer Martial Prévert came up with the bright idea of projection screens, styled on Fifties TV sets, to present enlarged, hi-res scanned images by the artists. We hit on the idea of 9 screens in all, the same number as the number of spheres in the Atomium. Seven are dedicated to seven undisputable geniuses of the Atom Style: Joost Swarte (Holland), Ever Meulen (Belgium), Javier Mariscal (Spain), Yves Chaland (France), Serge Clerc (France), Daniel Torres (Spain) and François Avril (France). The last two screens present a further eight international artists, four per screen: Ted Benoit (France), Paul Rivoche (Canada), Rian Hughes (UK) and Antonio Lapone (Italy) in the first; and Grégoire Bouchard (Canada), Woodrow Phoenix (UK), Laurent Cilluffo (France) and Reinhart Croon (Belgium) in the second.

Rian Hughes and Woodrow Phoenix attend the exhibition opening.
Photos © Rian Hughes.

We also resolved to spotlight striking, strong single images in most cases, rather than more complex compositions of comics. A number of video companies came up with presentation concepts for these mini-films, one going so far as to break up the images into different flat picture planes and even partly animate some of the figures. We all agreed that a more respectful approach to the images was vital, so that while each video starts within one larger image, exploring different details, it should always pull out and show the whole image full screen for the public to contemplate and appreciate, before moving on to the next.

Atom Style Exhibition Plan at the Atomium
© Martial Prévert

The circular dome-shaped gallery space created challenges of design and layout, which Prévert solved by having all the screens mounted high up around the ceiling, while around the central axis of the space stands a special structure housing the projectors mounted above and twelve text panels back-to-back in six pairs, also in the shape of a Fifties television screen, to give visitors background and biographies to enrich their understanding. Graphic designers Paquet-Cléda came up with some perfect harmonious type, using the font from Dupuis albums of the Fifties, and co-ordinated colour palettes for each artist. We had thought of adding a soundtrack - perhaps from a Jacques Tati movie or early Eighties rock tracks - but echoing acoustics and costs of music rights scuppered this. The lower half of the sphere houses a complementary exhibition of fourteen comic artists’ interpretations of the Atomium, created as limited edition silkscreen prints. These have been enlarged and circle the gallery with accompanying commentary on each artist in the centre on three sides of text panels, subtly lit from behind.

It was a thrill to work on this project and to be in touch again with some of my very favourite artists and to make contact with other international talents. I’d forgotten that Grégoire Bouchard submitted his work to Escape back in the Eighties and he had treasured the badge I had sent him when I wrote back in response at the time. Similarly, I’ve known Laurent Cilluffo from almost the very beginning of his career and watched him flourish, notably in the New Yorker. I discovered Reinhart at the Flemish show in Angoulême this January and it was a pleasure meeting him.

It goes without saying that many more Atom Style artists could have been included. One I was especially keen to feature was Jean-Louis Floch, brother of the Anglophile aesthete Floc’h. His two books with writer Jean-Luc Fromental shown here stand out for me as Atom Style gems, but the other JLF has all but vanished from comics and from France and without his permission, and without access to any of his originals, the organisers were rightly not prepared to include him.

It was also a disappointment that Darwyn Cooke was too busy on his superb new graphic adaptation of Richard Stark’s Hunter to send his images through in time. Hopefully these two and others can join their other Atom Stylists in a subsequent version of this show.

I can certainly envisage this exhibition being presented again and more fully in an art gallery or museum location, where all these elements can be joined by framed original artworks of their remarkable comics pages. There would also be the chance to bring in several more Atom Style artists not included here and ideally show originals, prints and other materials to convey some of their various references and influences from the Fifties. This show proves that the Atom Style is as vital and vigorous as ever today and still has enormous appeal.

Four of the invited artists in this exhibition shared some of their thoughts about the Atom Style.

Paul Rivoche:
It’s difficult to capture, in mere words, my love for The Atom Style. Having grown up reading Tintin (my first comic album was "Red Rackham’s Treasure"), I was already enthralled by the strong simplicity, the sheer graphic punch, of line-with-flat-colour. Seeing Yves Chaland’s work, though, brought my appreciation for the possibilities of this style to a whole new level. For me, his work is the pinnacle of this approach to comics. The first album of his which I purchased was "Bob Fish", and then later "The Elephant’s Cemetary" and the other Freddy Lombard albums. I was instantly, and forever, captured by the ease with which he combined characters, story, and a fully realized world, all wrapped up in a brawny "graphic punch": a punch which came from many things, such as his brilliant staging choices, deft use of thick and thin ink lines, and above all, mastery of design in all its manifestations. He could create unified, balanced wholes, where too often, others only create disjointed pieces. With his finely envisioned and superbly executed art, with not a line out of place, as perfectly jointed as the most exquisite piece of cabinetry, he delivered that elusive sense of ‘rightness’ which we all crave: the ‘peace of the perfect whole’.

Fitting, then, that it be called "Atom Style" - because after all, an atom is, itself, a sort of whole. In this modern comics world (where especially in North America) we are victims of a swarming plague of over-rendered complexities, the profound, simple strengths and innocent joys of graphic lines and flat colour, as found in The Atom Style, are a refuge, a touchstone, to which I gladly return, as often as possible.

Grégoire Bouchard:
I was greatly influenced by the revival of the Clear Line of the Eighties. I particularly appreciated Daniel Torres, Yves Chaland and Floc’h. I am an admirer of Blake and Mortimer and consider E.P. Jacobs as a great master. And for me one of the summits of the Atom Style is the wonderful little book by Daniel Torres, Sabotage. I find the Atom Style perfectly adapted for narrating a story, because, as Van Gogh said, reality is too intense to be reproduced, consequently you must try and choose certain elements. The Atom Style applies these principles and that is what makes it so powerful and effective visually.

Laurent Cilluffo:
What started as a promotional pun was turned, later on, by some people I will call "the" followers into a style, that is something without any substance, with a regard to the mere "beauty" made up through "some" (not "any") line and eventually some colours to top it off. Those same people couldn’t care less about content and how to introduce some content; their only purpose was the final product which had to be beautiful, following some canon. Needless to say I’ve got zero interest for that approach.

I find no flaw in style, if it brings in an element of being organic, that is if its sole purpose and aim are not in delivering a mere beautiful picture, for which I’ve got no use. Real style brings its own content with it. Copiers do not. They have no clue about how an artist came up with certain graphic solutions in the first place. Real style is made of graphic solutions. This is true not only with the "Atom Style".

But the problem with the "Atom Style" is that some people love it for the sole "beauty" of it, and that "beauty" thing tends to have some kind of a "fascist" ring to my ears.

Rian Hughes:
The Atom Style for me was the first time I’d seen comics that displayed an awareness of art and design history - products, architecture, clothes. The comics we were getting from the US (and UK) were completely disconnected from the broader art world, and were self-referential to the point of being hermetically sealed. These new comics coming out of Europe were clean, precise - they were GRAPHIC. I also got all the design references. I could spot the Raymond Loewy Coca-Cola dispenser, the Eames chair. This is why I connected with the style - in fact, it inspires my design-aware approach to illustration to this day.

Posted: July 12, 2009


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Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

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